Polka Tale Is Full of Promise


By Suzanne Strempek Shea

Pocket Books, 356 pp., $22

Any book about an all-girl polka band that begins "Winkie Papuga started it all," promises to be a treat and is definitely worth a perusal at the beach.

Susan Strempek Shea returns to the small-town Polish-American life she captured so successfully in her first novel, "Selling the Lite of Heaven," and for which one critic gushingly dubbed her the "Amy Tan-ski of Polish family life."

Fourteen-year-old Donna Milewski had it all - a loving Babci (grandmother) to cook for her; a mother whose nimble fingers sewed more outfits than Barbie ever dreamed of; and best of all, a doting father to listen to her play the accordion.

When her family adopts her Polish cousin Elzbieta, Donna isn't wild about having a little sister (and even less fond of the notion of sharing her adored father with the cherubic interloper). But she gets to pick out a white-and-gold bedroom set like Hayley Mills's in "The Parent Trap," and name her new sister after her favorite Flintstone: Betty.

Then an accident occurs that lands both girls in the hospital, turns Betty into a small celebrity, and Donna (whom everyone blames for the tragedy) into a pariah in her own home. Even her father won't listen to her explanation. (Betty, who has no recollection of the accident, is no help.) Donna turns the next 16 years of her life into an act of revenge against her father. After his death, however, she quits the factory job her father despised and sets out to fulfill his fondest wish: She hauls her accordion out of the closet and starts her own all-girl polka band.

Unfortunately, "Hoopi Shoopi Donna" (named after a polka) ultimately fails to live up to its considerable promise. Its one not-inconsiderable flaw is the book's unsatisfying ending - which has Donna's cousin Aniela whisk in from Poland in the last 10 pages to act as a deus ex machina and reveal the secret behind Donna's father's seemingly inexplicable heartless behavior.

Shea's writing is sure and engaging, and her knowledge about Polish life in western Massachusetts considerable. The descriptions of Babci's feasts are breathtaking and will leave readers hankering for a steaming plate of golabki - even if they aren't exactly certain what those are.

*Yvonne Zipp is on the Monitor staff.

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